Sunday, August 07, 2005

Hoping for a "big front yard"

I just read Clifford D. Simak's 1959 Hugo-winner novelette, "The Big Front Yard." If you haven't read it, please do yourself a favour, skip this post for now and go find it. Then come back and see if you agree with me.

It's clever, whimsical, and rich with familiarly odd characters. But that's not enough to explain its charm. I think the magnetism of this story is in its giddily hopeful ending. We start in a remarkably ordinary, mundane, safe setting, but it quickly goes peculiar. Our hero's world becomes bizarre and apparently very dangerous, but he knows no other home, and so he fascinates us by staying and carrying on as if all is well. The tension builds, and just when it looks as though he has no way out, the universe opens up before him. He wins all, just by continuing to live as he has always lived, even while his world appeared to be going crazy.

The delight, for me, was a gut-felt joy at the possibility Simak's story presented, that the terrifying limits of the world we think we know, may not actually exist. Perhaps we don't need to find ourselves an alternative to fossil fuels; perhaps we don't need to grope our way to a zero-growth economy. Perhaps if we just carry on as usual, the universe will open up for us, and all our fears of environmental catastrophe will fade away like shadows at the dawn.

I'm not sure I could have felt that joy a couple of years ago. In fact I might not have enjoyed the story at all. I might have been too angry at Simak for nurturing false hope and helping people ignore the bleak truth. Ironically, I myself hadn't really faced the bleakness, hadn't faced the worst possible outcome and accepted it. I was still fighting to "save the planet." Once I accepted the possibility of an Earth devoid of life, I was free to see a technological optimist as a friend, free to listen deeply to all sorts of environmental "bad news," and free to work as I have never worked before, in the service of life.

So bring on the joy. Thanks, Simak. Your story is like a tall cold lemonade for a worker on a hot day.

1 comment:

Wayne said...

Thanks for mentioning Simak, and especially this short story. I periodically take down my Simak books and re-read them - his unusual writing and unique points of view have a way of leading me to think things differently.